A hydrometer is an instrument used to measure the specific gravity
Specific gravity
Specific gravity is the ratio of the density of a substance to the density of a reference substance. Apparent specific gravity is the ratio of the weight of a volume of the substance to the weight of an equal volume of the reference substance. The reference substance is nearly always water for...

 (or relative density
Relative density
Relative density, or specific gravity, is the ratio of the density of a substance to the density of a given reference material. Specific gravity usually means relative density with respect to water...

) of liquids; that is, the ratio of the density of the liquid to the density of water.

A hydrometer is usually made of glass
Glass is an amorphous solid material. Glasses are typically brittle and optically transparent.The most familiar type of glass, used for centuries in windows and drinking vessels, is soda-lime glass, composed of about 75% silica plus Na2O, CaO, and several minor additives...

 and consists of a cylindrical stem and a bulb weighted with mercury
Mercury (element)
Mercury is a chemical element with the symbol Hg and atomic number 80. It is also known as quicksilver or hydrargyrum...

 or lead shot
Lead shot
Lead shot is a collective term for small balls of lead. These were the original projectiles for muskets and early rifles, but today lead shot is fired primarily from shotguns. It is also used for a variety of other purposes...

 to make it float upright. The liquid to be tested is poured into a tall container, often a graduated cylinder
Graduated cylinder
A graduated cylinder, measuring cylinder or graduate is a piece of laboratory equipment used to accurately measure the volume of a liquid. Water displacement can be used to find out the volume of a solid. Graduated cylinders are generally more accurate and precise for this purpose than flasks and...

, and the hydrometer is gently lowered into the liquid until it floats freely.